No more safeguards?

By , Marsha McGraw is associate director of the Arms Control Association, a non-profit educational organization. She was formerly with the Non-Proleferation Bureau of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

The nonproleferation regime is under fire. First, Israel rebuffed the integrity of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by its vigilante action against Iraq's Osirak reactor. Then, in his June 17 press briefing, President Reagan indicated it didn't really matter that Israel did not forswear nuclear weapons and become an NPT party, since many of the 114 current parties were probably developing them anyway. This treaty "doesn't lend itself to verification," he asserted.

The final blow came June 19, when former IAEA safeguards inspector Roger Richter stated before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iraq's intent to develop nuclear weapons was "obvious" and IAEA safeguards as currently constituted were "totally incapable of detecting the production of plutonium" in Baghdad.

The Reagan and Richter remarks are bombshells as potent as those which Israel dropped on Osirak. Perhaps Mr. Reagan's resulted from inadequate briefing, or from confusion between verifying SALT agreements and the safeguards of the NPT. One hopes. It is unsettling when the President of the country which, since Eisenhower, both promoted peaceful nuclear energy worldwide and designed the international rules to prevent its military diversion shows such little faith in the system.

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Equally unsettling is the testimony of roger Richter. Mr. Richter explained, quite accurately, that "safeguards" represent an accounting system whereby the IAEA balances the books for the world's nuclear material flows. The agency sends its inspectors to the countries it serves on regular checkup missions to peer into reactor cores and verify if the number of fuel elements corrsponds to the inventory declared for that facility.

Knowing that Iraq could be undertaking activity not officially declared to the agency, however, and seeing no IAEA provision to warrant "snooping," Mr. Richter substantiated President Reagan's cynicism. Said Richter, "Perhaps the most disturbing implication of the Iraqi nuclear program is that the NPT agreement . . . absolve[s] the cooperating nations of their moral responsibility by shifting it to the IAEA."

Is this the case? Is the system culpable for creeping proliferation?

Certainly the NPT has attracted much criticism for being discriminatory or preventing unrestricted technology flows.Safeguards have been singled out as requiring technical and institutional improvement. Yet never has the existence or value of safeguards been so questioned.

The criticism misses the point. The NPT and IAEA safeguards system is not perfect, but it places a norm on international behavior that to belong is better. The essence of nonproliferation is national interest, and the Middle East proves it. Had bothm Israel and Iraq been NPT parties with improved safeguards in place to verify intentions, the confidence of each nation, and the world at large, would have been substantially greater.

But Israel, with known weapons capability, was not a party, and Iraq, believed wanting that capability, was. Does this perversity cancel out that treaty? Hardly. Had Israel let they system work, it would have witnessed extraordinary diligence on the part of the IAEA and the French technicians to protect their reputations and, in the case of the IAEA, its raison d'etre.m

Mr. Richter's criticism notwithstanding, the weight of technical opinion is that the modifications to the reactor core would be so obvious for the production of plutonium that the Iraqis could not slip by both the agency and the French. Moreover, the IAEA has intrusive powers far more extensive than Mr. Richter indicated, including the ability of the board of governors to declare special inspections. The board need only state that it is unable to say there is no diversion for a violation to be reported to the UN Security Council.

Where the "system" may be culpable is in permitting the misfortunate combination of the Italian hot cells, the Portuguese natural uranium, and an extremely large research reactor to go to Iraq. These undeniably sent signals to Israel and prompted concern in the US government.

But this does not mean the NPT or IAEA safeguards are useless. It only means that in certain situations we need to follow more than standard operating procedures. We need mor e supplier restraint.

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